The Martian

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The Martian

Rated: PG-13 / Runtime: 2h 21m

Outpacing the subpar, feel-good space-disaster films of the late ’90s, The Martian’s scruffy, lovable, and intelligent survival story does everything right.

​Astronaut/Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon, who’s been stranded before in Interstellar) has been accidentally abandoned on Mars by his crew. Which means we’re stuck watching him for most of the film. This is the make-or-break moment for most single-subject survivals, and luckily Damon as Watney proves completely capable. A surprisingly physical performance, Damon transforms and suffers before our eyes. But this isn’t a downer movie. That’s not what it’s going for. So we get Watney, whether he’s pulling off the most intense self-surgery this side of director Ridley Scott’s underrated Prometheus or simply enduring his commander’s penchant for bad disco, always ready with a quip and a smirk. Damon shoulders the disheveled exhaustion with a cockiness found only in the truly hopeful.

The rest of the star-studded cast shines, especially Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Mackenzie Davis. Peña’s ball-busting sweetheart pilot taps into a close male friendship with very few lines, Ejiofor’s Mars Mission Director roams from desperation to despair to jubilation engagingly, and Davis’s youthful satellite imager emits a quiet charm.

Ridley Scott, as a reminder, directed sci-fi design landmarks Alien and Blade Runner in addition to visual effect Oscar nominee Prometheus. This guy can craft a world. The film looks stunning, with Mars’s desolate plateaus and rock structures looming over the tiny incursions of humanity. Chunky, blistering sandstorms and wispy, beautiful dust devils whip the screen with such diverse and complex textures, it’s astonishing that they’re not even the focus of their scenes. I could go on about the space suits, the zero-gravity movement, and the spaceship design forever, but just know that Scott and his visual team make it look GOOD.

Further, Scott controls the tone perfectly. Drew Goddard’s script (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel) makes a few necessary and frugal deviations from the source material, but maintains the competent, sarcastically defiant attitude of its main character and the earnest humanity of those trying to save him. The film pulses with emotion. Tear-jerking triumph was supposed to have died off in the campy action of the ’90s, but here it is, working better than ever.

If Interstellar is sci-fi focused on the fiction, this is sci-fi focused on the science. There’s a palpable weight to every decision of the plot because every decision is debated in front of us. Counterpoints and Plan Bs, deadlines and bureaucratic string-pulling, make it all feel very real. Not just because the science is sound and the numbers have been run, but because it all seems like a huge corporate pain in the ass. Which makes sense, space is tough. As Watney says, “It doesn’t cooperate”. And the best parts of The Martian involve the – at the risk of sounding like a job interview – collaborative problem-solving by the characters. The obstacles they overcome feel insurmountable.

When the first big, choking-back-tears, emotional moment of a movie involves what basically amounts to a guy receiving an e-mail from his boss, and it hits like a truck, you know you’re in for a ride.

​And when, post-accident, the first word out of your survivor’s mouth is an f-bomb, you know it’s a special ride.

The Martian is one of those inescapable stories of human achievement, those that in real life get turned into far worse movies than this.

It’s about people coming together to beat a great unknown adversary. Not through luck, or faith, or some hand-holding good-vibe sending garbage. But through mathematical and scientific competency, international collaboration, and good humor. That’s the most unabashedly positive view of humanity we’re likely to get this year, and it comes out of one of the year’s best, most accessible, and most entertaining movies.

The exciting part is that the film’s scientific accuracy has already been outdated with the ever-developing discovery that is Mars’s water. There will be kids that get taken to this film that, inspired, will work on the first trips to Mars. And if they get stuck, we’ll work like hell to get ’em back.

What a beautiful thought.

Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at or

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